Our bus pulls off the highway, turning into a complex resembling the corporate headquarters of a large conglomerate. As we make our way towards the building where we were to spend the majority of our time in China, I began to notice a few hints of the lives hidden behind these formidable walls. Like an abandoned playground, however, I did not hear the voices of children until we reached the Rose Garden’s Snoopy Room…
Before I continue I think it is important to acknowledge that while I was excited and eager to spend time with the children, there were also feelings of apprehension and uneasiness. Although these emotions are naturally associated with an unfamiliar experience in a new environment, I think it is crucial that we recognize them in order to fully appreciate the personal growth that follows. Before leaving New York, I told my family and friends that I had no expectations for this trip because I could not fathom any way to emotionally prepare myself for an experience like this. Even in retrospect, I do not think I could make any predictions about what I was to see or feel during my time in Shanghai. Despite my nerves, I set off into the halls of the Shanghai Children’s Home with an open heart and an open mind.
Anyone will tell you, first impressions are paramount; the children of the Snoopy Room were no exception. While I could sense the hesitation in the air when we first stepped into the room, it quickly melted away to profound joy and enthusiasm. Although a few children were stand-offish throughout our time at Shanghai Children’s home, the majority were instantly affectionate and playful. Not only did they express these kindnesses to us, but also (in the sweetest way) to each other. It was no secret that neither I, nor any of the other H.O.P.E. volunteers could hold our own with even functional Mandarin. That, however, did not pose as anything more than a slight inconvenience in the world of children. What we offered the children in affection, physical contact, and individual attention more than compensated for our hopeless attempts at their native language. I must agree with my fellow volunteers when they said that these kids were among the most obedient children they had ever seen. At such a young age, many of them would sit patiently in these tiny wooden chairs, waiting for the caregivers’ instructions in the next phase of their shockingly rigid schedule.
At the end of the day, I was in a word: surprised. I was surprised by how warm and trusting the children were, and also surprised by how their genuine happiness seemed to survive in what I had been taught were such bleak circumstances. More importantly, however, I was surprised that I felt largely unphased after the first day. Although I had imagined that I would immediately feel overwhelmed by the gravity of this experience, I felt no different than had I stopped in to work a shift at a day-care center. In truth it was almost like state of shock, where I knew that it was only a matter of time until the ultimate weight of the situation set in.
Friday Afternoon – Our final day with the children
Despite our many attempts to slow the passage of time, it always presses onward against our reluctance and disapproval. By the end of the week, I felt as though I had been robbed of several hours at the Shanghai Children’s Home. Although the days passed in a flash, it is undeniable that my time there was part of a once in a lifetime experience.
I can understand now, why most volunteers typically extend their stay well over a week. Personally, it took me a few days to process all the stimuli and information that I was being inundated with. By Wednesday, however, I feel as though all my defenses came crashing down and I truly began to appreciate this remarkable project that I was a part of. In fact, I can attribute this significant step forward to a single encounter. One morning when we went to the playroom, Miss Lilly appeared with an unexpected visitor. She held in her arms a child who literally took my breath away, an albino infant. I have never seen both the beauty and the cruelty of humanity all balled up into one as I did with this solitary white child. The little boy clearly suffered from additional problems as he visibly shifted and squirmed in people’s arms, ghostly blue eyes darting violently back and forth. After a great deal of lingering and loitering, I was able to hold the child myself. So consumed in the moment, I could not tell you how long I held him before he drifted to sleep. I sat listening to his hastened heartbeat and infantile cooing, wondering how anyone could ever have given him up. Looking around the room at the runny noses and purple lips, my heart sank in my chest. Had I been given the choice, I would have spent every minute of my remaining days at the Shanghai Children’s Home with that little boy.
Over the course of the week, I grew increasingly attached a few children at the orphanage (each of which I bestowed with a pet name to capture their unique personality): the Bubbler, Crazy Legs, the Drama Queen, Giggles, and of course the Council in Yellow. While it grew progressively more difficult to remind myself, I had to remember that these children were in fact, lucky. Although they may have been abandoned or given to the orphanage, each little boy or girl was given a second chance as they might not have survived on their own. Though seemingly slim, they might be blessed with a loving family to adopt them.
Yes; it is without a shadow of a doubt a jarring, heart-wrenching thing to witness. In light of that, however, I tried to find solace in the idea that every touch and each second spent with a child could make a difference. I feel fortunate to have been part of an organization that is striving to bring hope to the lives of children who have been deprived of love, merely because fate dealt them a bad hand.
By Blake Hastings
Shanghai Children’s Home Volunteer
To learn more about H.O.P.E. please visit our website at http://www.volunteerforhope.org/